‘Blackfish’ glitch: Did plan to fly orcas to Sochi for the Olympics get caught up in Moscow?

By Tony Ortega
Thursday, January 16, 2014 0:30 EDT
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Since November, there have been Internet reports that a Sochi aquarium was planning a splashy way to welcome visitors to the Black Sea town, the first summer resort to host a Winter Olympics.

Just this week, the UK Mirror repeated the claim that two orcas, captured off the east coast of Russia, were being flown to a Sochi dolphinarium in time for the winter games, and quoted an environmental group which condemned the stunt.

But now, members of that same environmental group tell Raw Story it looks like the two orcas intended for Sochi never got farther than Moscow, where developers are planning a massive new “oceanarium.” Meanwhile, Russian press releases, tweets, and videos all support the idea that the orcas may be in Moscow — the first ever held in captivity there — even though the Russian press hasn’t said a word about it

We contacted Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) when we could find no evidence that the orcas had been moved to Sochi as planned.

“We have no confirmation that the orcas have been sent to Sochi yet, but it was announced in December as something that would happen…If you find out more, please let us know too,” we were told by Erich Hoyt, WDC’s senior research fellow, who also operates a website that has been monitoring the capture of orcas by Russian companies.

Courtney Vail, WDC’s program and campaigns manager, says there’s been a sudden increase in Sea of Okhotsk orca captures in the last two years by a consortium of Russian companies that calls itself White Sphere. One of the companies involved in White Sphere is a Sochi aquarium.

Vail says that Russia’s government has set a quota of ten orca captures per year, but after a single capture in 2003, there had been no successful additional captures for almost a decade. Then, in 2012, White Sphere and potentially other operations suddenly started aggressively pursuing the animals.

In August 2012, a female orca that has been named “Narnia” was captured in the Sea of Okhotsk, Vail says. Since then, Narnia was being kept in a facility in Vladivostok on the east coast of Russia. Then, last September, a young male was also captured, bringing to eight the number of orcas that have been caught over the past year and a half in Russian waters.

It was Narnia and the young male who were then scheduled to be flown across the country at the end of November in order to be installed at a Sochi aquarium.

At least, that’s what is suggested by a November 26 tweet put out by Elena Krylova, chief press secretary of the Vnukovo Airport outside of Moscow…

Krylova tweeted: “On Thursday we are moving two orcas in pools, total weight 33.5 T to the Sochi dolphinarium. [smiley] All to the Olympics!”

But then, the same day, Krylova indicated that plans had suddenly changed…

She wrote: “We won’t be able to see the orcas this week. The transfer date of the precious ‘cargo’ is postponed. Will notify you of the new date additionally.”

Krylova wrote no further tweets about the transfer.

However, six days later, another airport press officer put out a release which indicated that the transfer was happening. The Yemelyanovo International Airport, which is in the Krasnoyarsk region in the middle of the country, said that a four-engine Ilyushin Il-76 “strategic airlifter” flown by Volga-Dnepr Airlines had stopped at the airport for a two-hour layover before heading on to Moscow, where the orcas were being installed at the new aquarium at the All-Russia Exhibition Centre. The two animals were being transported in huge, special tanks with seawater and ice — seven-year-old Narnia, the release said, was 5 meters long and weighed 2.7 tons, and the unnamed young male weighed 1.7 tons.

The All-Russia Exhibition Centre was built in the 1930s as a Soviet exhibition grounds to celebrate agricultural and other trades from around the country. It has hundreds of buildings on a 587-acre parcel, some in better shape than others.

Last June, it was announced that 2.1 billion rubles ($63 million) would be spent to build an aquarium at the centre that would be the largest in European Russia, and that rights to an orca had already been purchased. A short video presentation about the future aquarium featured illustrations showing that plans included a large pool that would be home to two orcas.


But construction is still in the future; in the meantime, a giant inflatable building, measuring 37 by 68 meters, was erected in October.

Local activists have wondered if the two animals, after arriving early in December, are being kept in tanks under the inflatable roof — or if they’re being kept at one of two other aquariums in the Moscow area. One of the activists shot a short video of the temporary building at the aquarium site, and we grabbed this frame…


There appear to have been no Russian press reports about two orcas arriving at the centre in December. But there have also been no reports of orcas arriving in Sochi.

“We don’t think there are orcas in Sochi,” Vail says, even though she agrees it makes sense the two orcas in Moscow were intended ultimately to be sent to Sochi.

And she isn’t the only one who thinks so. Russia’s Civic Chamber, on December 13, put out an official statement that it had received complaints about the plan to send two orcas to the Sochi aquarium and had one of its members, Bogdan Novorok, inquire with the Sochi prosecutor’s office and a federal natural resources center. Novorok also made a post on Facebook saying that the Chamber was investigating.

“I think the intent was to get them down there to exploit them for the crowds at the Olympics,” Vail says. But now it appears that at some point, a decision was made to keep the orcas in Moscow.

The Sochi dolphinarium will reportedly salvage one part of its plans and will have a dolphin carry the Olympic flame three days before the games, she adds.

If Narnia and the male are alive and at the Moscow facility, would the company risk sending them to Sochi with only three weeks to go before the games?

“You would hope not. The orcas need time not only to acclimatize to the transport but also to get used to a new facility, which can be a long and tenuous process” Vail says.

Either way, it’s a depressing new development for Russia to become more aggressive about capturing orcas just as orca captivity is becoming so controversial in the United States. Vail acknowledged that the recent documentary Blackfish has made a big difference in this country regarding attitudes about dolphin and whale shows.

“The public is done with captivity. I think they’re disaffected with it, particularly in the United States,” she says. There are 54 orcas in captivity in seven countries around the world, but no one has more orcas in swimming tanks than the United States, with 24, and all but one of those at SeaWorld facilities. (WDC lists the two orcas in Moscow and six more at the Vladivostok facility for a total of 8 in Russia.)

SeaWorld, however, has been knocked back on its heels by the documentary. “I think they were a little caught off-guard by such an overwhelming reaction,” she says.

Russia is another matter. Vail acknowledged that it’s been harder for the WDC to get information out of that country. Hoyt adds that it doesn’t really matter if the animals are in Sochi or Moscow — either way, they will lead impoverished lives.

“They don’t belong in captivity. I have been saying that for more than 30 years,” he says.

In November, Outside magazine’s Tim Zimmerman wrote about Hoyt and his efforts as a watchdog of Russian orca captures.

“Hoyt sees only one way the wild orca hunts will truly stop. ‘A lot depends on how many people per year pay to get into SeaWorld in the U.S., as well as paying to get into the growing number of such facilities in China, Japan and Russia,’ he says. ‘By last count, more than 120 facilities in these countries exhibit whales and/or dolphins. If there is no demand from the owners of these facilities and from the paying public, the selling price will go down and eventually there may be little or no supply offered for sale. Then the orca trafficking can stop’.”

Watch a short clip from Blackfish here…


Tony Ortega
Tony Ortega
Tony Ortega is Raw Story's executive editor. From 2007 to 2012 , he was editor-in-chief of The Village Voice. He also worked at Voice Media Group's other newspapers in Phoenix, Los Angeles, Kansas City, and Fort Lauderdale. He lives in New York City and is originally from Los Angeles.
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